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Rethinking ‘unskilled’

Coined by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the term “unskilled labor” is commonly defined as any work that doesn’t require formal training or advanced educational credentials. This definition doesn’t account for the fact that many of these roles require intensive physical labor or special interpersonal skills. That being said, many view the term as outdated and prefer “low-wage workers” to refer to this cohort.

As P points out in his TikTok rant, many low-wage roles were labeled “essential” during the pandemic. And while that came with its share of difficulties, the rest were often left scrambling for work.

Brookings found in 2021 that the COVID-19 pandemic had a disproportionately negative impact on low-wage workers: although they had only accounted for 43% of the labor force, they represented 52% of those “displaced” by the pandemic. And many had already been in a precarious financial position as it was.

With this in mind, some have tried to shift the debate away from improving skills and toward improving wages.

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The push for a livable wage

The Brookings 2020 report put the median hourly wage for low-wage workers at $10.22, while their median annual income was $24,000.

Overall, wages have barely kept up with the cost of living for several decades. The average earnings for an American worker, adjusted for inflation, are up only 4.4% since 2005, according to the BLS.

This despite the fact that Americans are, on average, more educated now. The percentage of U.S. adults aged 25 to 54 who have college degrees jumped from 38% in 2009 to 53.7% in 2021, according to a report from the Lumina Foundation. So much for the idea that Americans are failing to upskill.

With such a large segment of society earning low wages and a larger segment seeing barely any wage growth, some have argued that corporations and government agencies need to push for a “livable wage.”

“Every single job should pay a livable wage,” says P. “If you disagree with that, you are pretty much agreeing that our current system cannot function without people being kept in poverty.”

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Vishesh Raisinghani Freelance Writer

Vishesh Raisinghani is a freelance contributor at MoneyWise. He has been writing about financial markets and economics since 2014 - having covered family offices, private equity, real estate, cryptocurrencies, and tech stocks over that period. His work has appeared in Seeking Alpha, Motley Fool Canada, Motley Fool UK, Mergers & Acquisitions, National Post, Financial Post, and Yahoo Canada.

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